The Sisters of Notre Dame (SND) would never have made this list if it weren't for the four amazing years I spent with them in high school. Sure, the sisters would have had a special place in my heart since SND sponsors my alma mater, Notre Dame Academy. Every class I attended was surrounded by the spirit of St. Julie Billiart, founder of the SND. However, the Sisters of Notre Dame came into my heart so gently and so profoundly, that I am positive I am who I am today because of their beautiful influence.
Let me back track a minute: Theresa and I were the last of the siblings to attend a catholic high school and it doesn't matter how much money a family has, sending eight children through 12 years of private school will break the bank. As Theresa and I approached our eighth grade graduation, it was unclear whether we would actually be attending NDA. It seemed so unnatural to me, how could only three of the five sisters attend NDA? I felt like I was going to miss out on a tradition and more importantly to an eighth grader, the complete high school experience. My parents pressed on trying to find ways to allow us to attend NDA. They applied for the work study program to see if we could get some of the tuition lowered and unfortunately for us, the program was full.
Back to the drawing board.
Time passed, and as we were drawing summer to a close, my parents took Theresa and me out to dinner and I believe we made our way over to Mt. Adams to see the amazing view from the cathedral. That's the moment they shared the news. I call it a miracle.
The Sisters of Notre Dame invited our family to work three nights a week at the convent. Our job would be serving dinner, washing dishes and cleaning the Julie Learning Center, a daycare for preschool and kindergarten-aged children. In exchange for working at the convent, any money we earned would go towards the cost of our tuition.
|photo credit: snd1.org|
I will not lie and say that I was all on board, yet one of the first lessons I learned while working for the SND was sacrifice. Because of the work schedule, I was not able to tryout for soccer or run cross country. My 14-year-old self thought it was unfair that I had to work to pay to go to school (the horror!!!)
But any ounce of unfairness I clung to left my body as soon as we walked through the doors on our first day at the convent. We were welcomed with such a warm and grace-filled love it was hard not to melt in gratitude for these women who accepted us as their own.
Over the course of the next few month our family, as well as the sisters played by the rules. We sat quietly at our dinner table, at a safe distance from their community. After dinner, we would shuffle ourselves into the kitchen to clean up the meal, wash dishes, clean the daycare and head home. We each had our own set of frustrations in the beginning, as to be expected, I guess. Not only was my family going through a change with having to work for a convent, but the sisters too were learning to adapt to a family of lay people. However, there was never any harshness felt or given, but we did quickly learn that the sisters absolutely love routine and rituals.
We learned the rituals and routine through the right amount of hot/cold water in the right metal dish with the right ice cream scooper so they could scoop the perfect amount of ice cream without breaking their wrists. We learned to clean toilets with an absolute perfection and we could wash and dry large serving dishes like a pro.
Slowly but surely, we all became in tune with one another, and that's all it took. As the months pressed on the sisters would stop into the kitchen to chat and help us clean and then that turned into a chorus of sisters singing with our family as we flung dishes through the wash water. By the end of my Freshman year, it was evident that my sacrifice was more of a blessing and a gift, because what I gave up in order to go to NDA, I gained back in the time spend with the sisters. We worked all four years of high school at the convent and on our last day, it was one of the saddest but more richly rewarding experiences I have ever lived through. We were a part of their community, and they were our family.
I learned to be tender and compassionate, as well as living the gospel instead of merely reading about it in religion class. I saw that the SND were more than just women in black (or white, or navy blue), yet a pioneer for Christ. These women also loved pool, and beer and they had the most impressive collection of donated bread and breakfast pastries I have every seen. Each sister had her own story to tell and every member in my family developed a special bond with every sister at the Heights.
I am eternally grateful for the time I spent at the Notre Dame Heights: it is through their kindness and love that I learned and saw that God is truly present in all our hearts. The lives they lead are illustrated best by Cardinal Oscar Maradiaga, "We have to be like stained glass. We don't have our own light. We have to reflect the light of God."